How the 'Joy' Costume Designer Turned Jennifer Lawrence's Basic Shirting Into a Statement of Female Empowerment

Michael Wilkinson discusses how a simple wardrobe staple helped to shape the Oscar winner's real life-inspired character.
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Michael Wilkinson discusses how a simple wardrobe staple helped to shape the Oscar winner's real life-inspired character.
Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in her badass leather jacket and vintage aviators. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in her badass leather jacket and vintage aviators. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

After working together on the '70s-set dark crime comedy "American Hustle," the dream team of director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and costume designer Michael Wilkinson have reunited for the female empowerment drama, "Joy," opening on Dec. 25. (The film has already earned two Golden Globe nominations: one for Lawrence and another for Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical.) 

Based on the life of Joy Mangano, the millionaire inventor of the Miracle Mop, the movie follows the lead character, played by Lawrence, as she invents and markets the now-iconic household cleaning tool and ages from her 20s in the late 1970s to her 40s in 2000. "We approached 'Joy' as a timeless fable — an allegory about a woman's journey to self-discovery and self-empowerment," Wilkinson said regarding the team's approach. "We wanted the period of the film to be ambiguous. It's a great American family drama that could almost take place any time in the 20th century."

The costume designer did, however, find inspiration in movies from the '40s and '50s. "Each film was about women dealing with power and had a very specific visual style," he explained. "I love these old films — "Mildred Pierce," "All About Eve," "Rebecca," "Now Voyager" — where women show both inherent strength and a heartbreaking vulnerability. In fact, their strength comes from being able to reconcile their humanity and flaws with their ambitions. The character of 'Joy' is a part of the legacy of these daring women." 

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Which, interestingly enough, meant four decades full of button-down shirting for Lawrence to wear as she portrayed the Long Island single mother struggling and working her way to success — starting from the airline desk uniform we see her in at the start of the movie. "We wanted her costume choices to be timeless and classic — sturdy, honest pieces that have an emotional authenticity, an effortless beauty," explained Wilkinson, who also runs his own design firm WilkinsonMartin. "David was very keen to make the button-down shirt her everyday wardrobe staple: practical, unpretentious with clean lines and a sense of getting-down-to-business." Even when she scores a groundbreaking spot on a fledgling QVC to promote her innovative new invention, Joy pares down her live-on-TV makeover (and literally defies the Fashion Police, more below) to change from a '90s power-suit back into her uniform of a button-down and black slacks. 

 "We see her in many variations of this look," Wilkinson added. "David wanted to create a memorable, iconic silhouette for his leading lady."

Jennifer Lawrence in one of her few non-button-down outfits in the movie. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence in one of her few non-button-down outfits in the movie. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

As widely discussed, Lawrence, who already looks younger than her 25 years, again plays a character that's decades older. So overall styling — and Lawrence's impressive range — helped age a baby-faced Joy through 40 years. "I worked very closely with the hair and makeup team, striving to show these transformations in a way that is striking and imaginative, but always authentic," Wilkinson explained. "The challenge is to make it all feel organic and intelligent, rather than pulling focus [from the story]." Lawrence went through 45 costume changes throughout the movie — from a "young, open-hearted college kid in rebellious jeans and T-shirts to a steely resolute matriarch in designer suits."

In one of a few genius casting moves, Melissa Rivers plays her mother and former QVC host/entrepreneur Joan Rivers in the film. "It was such an honor to work with Melissa on this project and to help her transform into the image of her mother — obviously a very emotional moment for her," Wilkinson said. "I couldn't have asked for more direct feedback about what was accurate and what was not: her love of costume jewelry, her loyalty to certain brands and her indifference about other brands." Melissa wears two very Joan-appropriate power suits in the movie: an emerald green Oscar de la Renta and a navy and cream Chanel. Obviously, the accessories were from Joan's own successful $1 billion-generating jewelry line on QVC. 

Melissa Rivers as her mother Joan on QVC (right). Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Melissa Rivers as her mother Joan on QVC (right). Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

The other opportunity for over-the-top, glitzy sequined gowns and '90s power shoulders come from an accompanying side story played out by real soap opera actors on a faux daytime drama that Joy's mother (Virginia Madsen) watches incessantly. "I had fun recreating the highly stylized, operatic world of daytime television soaps, seen over the course of 40 years, from the 1960s to the 2000s," said Wilkinson. "It was incredible to explore the heightened costume language of this genre, and to have an appreciation and respect for this powerful medium, without any irony or condescension." So obviously, he needed to immerse himself in research and catch up on soapy classics "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Guiding Light," plus retro guilty pleasures like "The Secret Storm," and "Peyton Place."

Below, Wilkinson shares the inspiration behind a few of Lawrence's costumes in "Joy." SPOILER: the black leather jacket and aviator sunglasses are "no-name" vintage pieces. 

Wilkinson — who, by the way, is also the man behind Batman's new flexible cowl and the Wonder Woman super-suit makeover — was nominated for his costume design the last time he worked with Lawrence and O'Russell on "American Hustle." For this reason, he's used to J. Law's famed free-spirited, no-filter antics. "Fittings with Jennifer are always events to be looked forward to," he said. "There are snacks, anecdotes, costumes and shoes flying across the room — all presided over by Jennifer's dog, Pippi. I'm always blown away by the seemingly effortless way she can lose herself within the complexities of the characters that she plays. One second you're joking around with her, the next minute, she's Joy Mangano, standing next to you. It's uncanny."

Photo: Michael Wilkinson

Photo: Michael Wilkinson

Follow Michael Wilkinson on Twitter @WilkinsonMartin. "Joy" opens on Dec. 25.